Article Special Series

Tackling Tough Issues with Civic Engagement: Affordable Housing

This column is a service of the Institute for Local Government’s Land Use and Housing Program and Collaborative Governance Initiative, which offer resources for local officials. For more information, visit

Involving the public in local decision-making may be more comfortable for local officials when addressing small or noncontroversial issues, but what happens when community leaders face a deeply divided community and anticipate many tense and difficult discussions? This is precisely the kind of situation where civic engagement strategies can make the largest contribution – in terms of exercising leadership and also in achieving community consensus and making wise decisions.

The key is to design an effective community engagement strategy, given the policy question at hand. When it comes to community engagement strategies, one size definitely does not fit all.

Affordable Housing: The Challenge

Planning for affordable housing can present difficult issues for local officials. Neighborhood residents often have concerns about such housing. Left unaddressed, these concerns can result in deep-seated opposition to a project.

This situation puts local officials between the proverbial rock and a hard place. State law imposes a number of requirements designed to make sure communities offer housing to meet a range of income levels, and many local officials have a personal commitment to making sure their community has housing options for people of all ages and incomes.

Options to Consider

An Institute for Local Government publication, Building Public Support for Affordable Housing: A Toolbox for California Officials, lays out a comprehensive approach to the process of addressing public concerns related to an affordable housing project. As the Toolbox notes, identifying a specific strategy for involving residents is just one of six steps to successfully and constructively engage the public in the decision-making process. The steps involve:

  1. Conducting an initial assessment to understand the context of the proposal, its impacts, the stakeholders who may be affected and their concerns;
  2. Understanding the legal underpinnings and parameters of the decision-making process;
  3. Understanding and addressing the public’s concerns;
  4. Designing an appropriate public participation process with clearly articulated goals;
  5. Using specific techniques and formats for discussions; and
  6. Following up on commitments made to the community.

It’s critically important to clearly understand the goals of the public participation process, referenced in step 4, and to use an approach that supports achieving the goal. Possible goals and strategies include:

  • Promoting a certain project or policy (an informational approach);
  • Seeking input to inform decision-making and enhance public understanding (a consultation approach);
  • Helping the public come to an informed judgment about the project that will influence the ultimate policy or decision (an engagement approach); and
  • Resolving conflicts among competing interests (a conflict resolution approach).

The public’s trust and confidence in the local agency is influenced by whether the agency is forthright about the objective. There’s nothing more damaging than asking people for input that the agency has no intention of considering when it makes a final decision.

What about the usual approach of having a public hearing? Public hearings typically occur late in the process, after doubts and opposition have had an opportunity to build and solidify. Moreover, legal requirements related to due process and other fairness considerations can result in public hearings that are more about articulating concerns and opposition and less about finding areas of shared values and concerns.

For this reason, ILG encourages local agencies to consider using additional civic engagement techniques in advance of public hearing processes. The desired result is projects that move forward to meet the area’s needs for affordable housing and address the community’s concerns about those projects.

More Civic Engagement Resources Available Online

Building Public Support for Affordable Housing: A Toolbox for California Officials outlines a number of planning and public participation tools local agencies can use to address concerns related to affordable housing and overcome negative stereotypes. It can be downloaded free at

Planning Public Forums: Questions to Guide Local Officials provides practical steps to help local agencies build their capacity to use public forums effectively. It can be downloaded free at

Getting the Most Out of Public Hearings: Ideas to Improve Public Involvement provides practical ideas for making public hearings more effective forums for participants and public officials alike. Suggestions include how to add to the diversity of the public’s participation, improve the quality of testimony and communications at hearings and develop greater public trust in these processes for public decision-making. It can be downloaded free at

Hard copies of these publications can be purchased at

For more Collaborative Governance Initiative resources, including free downloads of civic engagement guides and tip sheets, visit and

NIMBY: What’s in a Name?

When working with the community about proposed affordable housing, the language that is used to frame the debate offers local officials a way to build trust. In particular, labeling skeptics or opponents of the project as “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) often solidifies their opposition, making ultimate resolution more difficult. Use of the NIMBY label by project proponents, local officials or others is unfair to groups and individuals that raise legitimate questions or express environmental or community-based concerns.

Instead of allowing name-calling to occur, local officials can focus public participation to bring forth project-related issues and questions, provide reliable information and find solutions to valid public concerns. In an inclusive process, opposition arguments based on prejudice or bias can be diminished and dismissed.

This article appears in the October 2008 issue of Western City
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